This (Deut. 8:3) is actually one of the most famous aphorisms from the Torah; it is repeated in the New Testament as well (Luke and Matthew 4:4). “Man does not live by bread alone” reminds us that when people receive nothing more than their physical needs, they are somehow not fulfilled. Perhaps the text is telling us that man is not just an animal who requires sustenance; we also need freedom, or perhaps a higher purpose, or even a dose of spiritualism.
This week I was studying this verse with @EliyahuMasinter, and we decided to try to figure out, using the Torah itself, what the verse is actually saying. The results delighted and amazed us, and I wanted to share them.
Let’s set the scene. I think it is well understood that languages are not perfectly translatable into other languages. Translating the Torah today suffers from this problem perhaps more than many others, because Biblical Hebrew (which can be understood on its own terms) has been largely supplanted by Modern Hebrew, the language spoken in Israel. As a result, modern translations can unthinkingly superimpose a modern meaning that may be completely absent in the Torah itself.
The fascinating thing to me is that all the interesting words found later in the text of the Torah invariably are first used in (and defined by) a usage earlier, usually in the Book of Genesis. This repeated usage ties the entire document together, both explaining and defining the commandments and phrases found later in the text by the stories and examples found earlier in document, in much the same way that our childhood experiences forms the basis through which we cope with adulthood. This means that the Torah is an entirely self-referential document, and we can understand what a word means solely from the way it is used in the text itself, by its earlier context.
So let’s look at this verse, and identify the key words, the words that need to be understood in order to understand what the text is telling us.
We’ll start with the King James translation; it is never a bad place to start:
…man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live. (Deut. 8:3)
By way of contrast, let me share a present-day Orthodox Jewish translation that illustrates how what we may want the text to say, somehow replaces what it actually says:
… man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the LORD decrees.
The differences between these two translations of the end of the verse are pretty stark, suggesting that the translators did not have a clear path to an unambiguous meaning. Such verses are full of potential for clarification.
Let’s start with the most obvious word: the one translated as “to live.” It sounds simple enough – “living” suggests biological life itself, right? But the Torah’s use of this word, יִחְיֶ֣ה, does not mean biological life at all, but instead something far more important.
Here’s the first time the word is found in the Torah: G-d promises Avraham that he will have a son with Sarah. Avraham responds: “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (Gen. 17:18).
While Ishmael will be blessed and successful, G-d rejects Avraham’s request. Instead, it is Sarah’s son who will continue the divine covenant. Which tells us that the Hebrew “to live” is connected not to biological life, but instead to a certain feature of life, a connection to G-d. This use of “life” is about intergenerational destiny and overarching purpose, about much more than mere physical existence. Avraham does want to live forever. He wants to carry on through his son, his legacy.
The same usage is repeated in the very next time the word is used. After Jacob leaves Lavan’s house, Lavan pursues him, knowing that someone has stolen Lavan’s idols. The text is usually translated as: “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live.” But if you read the text carefully, it just as reasonably reads: “Anyone who encounters your gods is not living!” Or as the late Jackie Mason may have put it, “Worshipping an idol? Pheh! You call that living?!” The entendre is easy to miss. But it is there.
In other words: The Torah is telling us that merely doing well (as Ishmael did) is not real living. Neither is having an encounter with pagan deities. Real living comes through encounters with the real G-d.
In this way “Man does not live on bread alone,” can be understood literally and not just as a figure of speech. The Torah is telling us that what we translate as “living” means more than just a biological existence. Bread does not substitute for a connection with the divine.
Which leaves us with the rest of the verse: if man does not live on bread alone, what does he live on? The King James gives us: “but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” (Deut. 8:3) We flagged the Hebrew for “proceedeth” and “mouth” as words that are not clear at first reading, not until we see how the Torah uses these words elsewhere.
“Matza” is the Hebrew that the KJ translates as “proceedeth.” In Modern Hebrew it means “find.” But in the Torah, “Matza” (not the same word as the flat bread), is first used when Cain worries that since he is a murderer, he will be killed: “Anyone who meets (matzas) me may kill me!” The next time is later in Genesis: Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry.” “Bring her out,” said Judah, “and let her be burned.” She was brought out (matza)…”
Both of these examples are not merely about being found, or discovering an object. They are about a life-or-death meeting with another person. The meeting is important in its own right, definitionally important to their lives.
And the same root word for “matza” is the word for the exodus from Egypt, which is another life-or-death situation with everything at stake.
Bringing it back to our verse: “Man does not live by bread alone. But he will live on all the important life-or-death encounters with the “fi” of G-d. This is the word the KJ translates as “mouth.” But how is it used in the text?
The first incidence is to refer to the mouth of the well, off of which Jacob rolls a stone. The “Fi” is the mouth of that well, the gateway to life-giving water in a parched region.
The second incidence refers to the mouth of the sacks that Joseph’s brothers carry to and from Egypt.
To call this the “mouth” of G-d is to miss that the text uses “Fi” not as a source of words (as with a mouth on a person), but as a source of good things: the mouth of the well is the way to water; the mouth of the bag is the way to grain or money or even a special goblet.
Much later in the Torah, the word is used when the people are castigated for listening to the fears of the spies:
Yet you refused to go up, and declined the “Fi” of the LORD your God.
We rejected the contents of the goodie-bag, refusing G-d’s gift of the land of Canaan to us.
Which then allows us to propose a much more full (though ungainly and wordy) sense of what this verse means:
“Man does not have a meaningful existence through bread alone. But he will achieve that purpose through the important life-or-death intersections with the cornucopia contained through G-d’s portal.”
Connecting with the divine is real living. And it is hardly a one-size fits-all solution: both in the Torah and in life we see that each person has their own unique relationship with G-d, that no two of us are even supposed to seek an identical relationship with the divine. As with Cain and Tamar, there is risk in that connection, but there is also all the richness that comes from doing more than merely living on bread.